June 11, 2021
The Black Church & America’s Music
Singers who started in Gospel, from left to right: Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Faith Evans, and John Legend.
When we see America’s black music legends, we are witnessing the power and legacy of Gospel music. Of the many musicians that got their start in Gospel, Reverend Dr. Stanley Keeble said: “They got their development in the Church because the Church required a lot. The singers and the musicians had to perform exceptionally well and if you didn't, you didn't get to perform anymore. Because the Church… had a duty to present what was good… The Lord doesn't deserve what is not our best. So it's our duty to give him our best.”[1]
From left to right: Pastor Donnie McClurkin; Bobby Jones taping the "Bobby Jones Gospel" show, 1986;
Sam Cooke, 1963.
Known as the “Reigning King of Urban Gospel” and for his exceedingly popular song ‘Stand, singer and pastor Donnie McClurkin added: “You can't have R and B without gospel, you can't have pop without gospel, you can't have adult contemporary without gospel, you can't have country music without gospel, it all comes from the church, it all comes from that experience.”[2] Gospel singer and television host Bobby Jones similarly noted:  “R and B and gospel are very much related. And a lot of the biggest rhythm and blues stars or soul stars come out of the gospel experience, like Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, and you can go on and on.”[3]
From left to right: Dionne Warwick, c. 1960s; Jerry Butler and The Impressions, c. 1958; The Harmonizing Four,
c. 1940s.
That is indeed true of the legendary Dionne Warwick, the first African American woman soloist to win a Grammy Award, who, in her 2001 HistoryMakers interview, noted: “I grew up in a gospel singing family…the Drinkards, my aunts and uncles, my mother's brothers and sisters… So my background is gospel music.”[4] Grammy Award-winning R&B singer John Legend also credits the church for him becoming the successful musician he is today: “I grew up in a Pentecostal church in Springfield, Ohio… and it was what inspired me to want to sing… My grandfather was our pastor, and my grandmother was our church organist. My mother was the choir director, and my dad played the drums for the choir and sang.”[5] R&B crooner Jerry Butler also sang Gospel with the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers before joining the popular R&B group The Impressions: “There was Sam Cooke who was a contemporary and yet was a major gospel star and then later became a major pop star. There was The Five Blind Boys [of Alabama] and The Harmonizing Four and The Highway Q.C.s, all those gospel groups we loved and admired… All of them had become my idols.”[6] Fred Cash, also a member of The Impressions, spoke of Gospel’s influence on their music: “'Keep on Pushing,' that was a gospel song that Curtis [Mayfield] kinda took some of the gospel lyrics out and kind changed it around a little bit… most of our songs… have always had that gospel overtone to it.”[7]
From left to right: The Temptations on The Ed Sullivan Show, 1969; The Soul Stirrers’ Shine On Me, 1950; Mahalia Jackson, undated.
Otis Clayborn Williams, original member of the Motown Records R&B group, The Temptations, had similar early influences: “Back then… I listened to The Swan Silvertones, The Soul Stirrers, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and The Famous Ward Singers. So, I would hear all the greats of that time… I would lay there and listen to them. So when I got to Detroit, I was crazy about listening to The Soul Stirrers and The Swan Silvertones.[8] Donald "Duck" Porter, member of the Doo Wop group The Spaniels, also sang with a Gospel group before turning to Doo Wop: “We sang gospel before we sang with the Spaniels… called Joiner's Five Trumpets… we learned all the gospel cords and everything. And… that flavor we brought to rhythm and blues… That's the foundation of rhythm and blues… that's one of the reason that the music is so lasting. 'Cause it has a genuine foundation.”[9]
Young Thomas A. Dorsey as Georgia Tom, undated (left); Dorsey performing "This Far by Faith, Hour Three,"
undated (right).
That foundation is genuine because of Gospel music, which has blues and jazz as its underpinning, as noted by Reverend Dr. Lena McLin, niece of the “Father of Gospel Music” Thomas A. Dorsey, who was initially criticized: “As a boy, he would slip out and go to the Decatur Theatre [Decatur, Georgia]… and he learned how to play… he became known as Georgia Tom. And he wrote over a hundred blues [songs]. And he was a musical director for Ma Rainey… And he added his beats for popular music into church music… and it worked because at that time, the churches, after the Emancipation Proclamation, did not wanna sing spirituals anymore… they brought back too many painful memories.”[10] Gospel music has the ability to capture even the uninitiated as noted by Edmund B. Gaither, founder of Boston’s National Center of Afro-American Artists: “When the music really gets going, you get sucked into it and you get lost in it the way you get lost in dance when you're really enjoying dance and you're not separate from the music… There's a unity that the form itself sucks you into… you go to church and, people get happy and start shouting.”[11]
From left to right: Andraé Crouch on The Jeffersons, 1982; Edwin Hawkins and the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ The Comforter, 1977; Martha and the Vandellas, c. 1965. 
The first African American representative for ASCAP Vivian Scott Chew explained: “Andraé Crouch, Walter and Edwin Hawkins… they were like our heroes… so many people started in the church… We had such a big percentage of youth in our church because they came to hear the choir. We were like superstars. It was incredible.”[12] Motown singer Martha Reeves, lead singer of the musical group Martha and the Vandellas, told of her brother’s Gospel group who initially influenced her: “My brother Benny [Reeves]--and he still sings--he's the oldest. He had a group called The Motorcity Travelers. They did acapella gospel, and they could rock any church. There were five members of them, and they were my first idols… in the music business.”[13]
The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, undated (left) and The Dixie Hummingbirds, undated (right).
Poet and professor Askia Toure' recalled how Gospel was so popular that it made its way to the street, with young people forming competitive singing groups: “We use to have groups competing with each other… groups used to compete for prizes and they use to trade singers and stuff among them and I remember… they had a big competition, and these kinda rumpled looking guys came and they were outta Columbus [Ohio]… and I remember Dewey Bailey and them. They were sharp and they… had their berets and had their Bermuda shorts… and so these were our local heroes… and Dewey and 'em threw down, everybody gave 'em standing ovations. Man these [Columbus] guys came up on the, on the stage… everybody said ‘oh boy, these poor guys we feel sorry for 'em.’ Man, these brothers got the mic… it was like an angel came outta this guy's mouth… they turned the thing out, people were hollering and screaming.”[14] Actor Louis Cameron Gossett, Jr. added that these singing contests were where many stars got their start: “A group called The Gospel Brothers, and that was our thing… we'd go to the Brooklyn Paramount [Paramount Theatre]… sing… 'Sweet Hour of Prayer' and… our competition was Ray Charles and Al Hibbler, the original Five Blind Boys. And on the stage would come the Dixie Hummingbirds… Sam Cooke [and The Soul Stirrers]… That's where they started.”[15]
The Ramsey Lewis Trio, from left to right: Eldee Young, Ramsey Lewis, and Isaac “Redd” Holt, 1966.
Jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, who formed the Ramsey Lewis Trio in 1956, recalled the Gospel background of the Trio’s members: “In those days as we began, began being bigger and bigger, critics were confounded because until then most jazz groups set lists recordings were based on Charlie Parker tunes, Duke Ellington tunes, Thelonious Monk tunes. And here we come with… songs that draw heavily on black gospel music… And so the critics just didn't know. ‘Well, what is this? Are they jazz? Well, what are they?’ …The majority of them were positive [critiques]… the common denominator between Eldee [Young], [Isaac] Redd [Holt] and I was the gospel and the jazz… what really brought us together was the gospel feel that we all shared. And we developed out of that.”[16]
Ray Charles’ songs “Hallelujah I Love Her So!” 1956 (left) and “I Got a Woman,” 1954 (right).
Drummer and singer Eric "Ricky" McKinnie pointed out how Ray Charles, like so many other artists, transitioned from Gospel, but kept the Gospel sound: “Blues and gospel go hand and hand because, see, you can take any gospel song and take Jesus out and put baby in and it's a blues song. And you take any pretty much any blues song, take baby out and put Jesus in you can make it… a gospel song. That's why the people had a lot of problems with Ray Charles in the beginning because… he was taking that gospel feel and gospel songs and changing 'em around… but it worked for him.”[17] For example, “the inspiration for Charles’ 1956 ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’ was ‘That’s why I Love Him So,’ a 1953 Apollo single by the New York-based Gospel All Stars… Likewise, 1954’s ‘It Must Be Jesus’ by the Southern Tones became the foundation for Charles’ ‘I’ve Got A Woman.’”[18] Blues musician Eddy Clearwater (1935 – 2018) added: “We were raised with that theory that the blues was of the devil, and the gospel was of God… And there's such a fine line between gospel and the blues (laughter)… how do you separate it? (laughter)… the gospel is about the truth… so is blues (chuckle).”[19] As Emmy Award-winning music composer Rickey Payton, Sr. said: “It's all in the family… if you take the slave from slavery time… we started singing acapella before there was any music added… that eventually translated into the blues, into the jazz, it's all part of the same family… You can't get away from it.”[20]
Whitney Houston and The Georgia Mass Choir, 1996.
Let the influence of Gospel continue to live on to deepen and widen America’s sound. 
[1] Reverend Dr. Stanley Keeble (The HistoryMakers A2003.284), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 2, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Reverend Dr. Stanley Keeble talks about his gospel and secular music work.
[2] Donnie McClurkin (The HistoryMakers A2016.068), interviewed by Harriette Cole, October 8, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 13, story 1, Donnie McClurkin talks about the future of gospel music.
[3] Bobby Jones (The HistoryMakers A2014.109), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 24, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 5, Bobby Jones describes the history of gospel music.
[4] Dionne Warwick (The HistoryMakers A2001.087), interviewed by Diahann Carroll, November 15, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, Dionne Warwick discusses her parents' involvement in her early career.
[5] Adelle M. Banks. “John Legend credits childhood in Pentecostal church for his choice to pursue music,” Religion News, February 8, 2021, accessed June 10, 2021. https://religionnews.com/2021/02/08/john-legend-credits-childhood-in-pentecostal-church-with-his-music-career-choice/
[6] The Honorable Jerry Butler (The HistoryMakers A2002.070), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 11, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, Jerry Butler comments on being influenced by Nat Cole and others.
[7] Fred Cash (The HistoryMakers A2005.173), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 28, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Fred Cash talks about the influence of gospel music in The Impressions' songs.
[8] Otis Clayborn Williams (The HistoryMakers A2008.068), interviewed by Jacques Lesure, April 1, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 13, Otis Clayborn Williams talks about his musical influences.
[9] Donald "Duck" Porter (The HistoryMakers A2003.097), interviewed by Adele Hodge, May 5, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, Donald Porter explains how gospel is the backbone of R&B.
[10] Reverend Dr. Lena McLin (The HistoryMakers A2005.001), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 5, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4, Reverend Dr. Lena McLin talks about her maternal uncle, Thomas A. Dorsey.
[11] Edmund B. Gaither (The HistoryMakers A2001.086), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, February 12, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 2, Edmund Gaither details his childhood observations regarding his music and art interests.
[12] Vivian Scott Chew (The HistoryMakers A2012.117), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 18, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 9, Vivian Scott Chew describes meeting gospel stars and her church's gospel choir.
[13] Martha Reeves (The HistoryMakers A2005.022), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 20, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, Martha Reeves lists her childhood musical idols.
[14] Askia Toure' (The HistoryMakers A2007.131), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 10, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Askia Toure talks about singing in choirs as a youth and participating in singing competitions.
[15] Louis Cameron Gossett, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2005.086), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 30, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Louis Cameron Gossett, Jr. describes the popularity of gospel contests in the 1950s.
[16] Ramsey Lewis (The HistoryMakers A2001.040), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 29, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 4, story 3, Ramsey Lewis describes the musical influences of the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
[17] Eric "Ricky" McKinnie (The HistoryMakers A2006.112), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 11, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Eric "Ricky" McKinnie compares gospel music and blues music.
[18] Robert Marovich. “Turning Gospel classics into R&B classics,” XPN Gospel Roots, January 7, 2019, accessed June 9, 2021. http://xpngospelroots.org/gospel-classics/
[19] Eddy Clearwater (The HistoryMakers A2004.157), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 2, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, Eddy Clearwater discusses the close relationship of gospel and blues music.
[20] Rickey Payton, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2005.116), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 3, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Rickey Payton, Sr. describes the conflict between secular and church music.